A Russian doctor ventures miles beneath the earth's surface to investigate mysterious deaths at a secret Soviet research facility
One of the best horror movies dealing with monsters beneath the surface is Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), but Superdeep has more in common with another recent Russian film: Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik (2020). In both, a young woman doctor in Soviet-era Russia is assigned to deal with an unknown entity infecting humans; in both, she discovers the real plan is to harness this entity as a weapon; and in both, there are metaphors for the Soviet Union’s corruption and decay, perhaps more obviously in Superdeep with its sinister mold.
However, where Sputnik’s creature from space was a means to explore human and political questions, Superdeep is essentially an alien movie in which the alien is technically terrestrial (just as many films set at the bottom of the ocean are), and lead actor Milena Radulovic essentially plays the Ripley from Aliens (1986) role as Anya.
After a prologue setting up some of Anya’s background, which is atmospheric but unnecessary, Superdeep gets into the story proper: at the Kola Superdeep Borehole in northwestern Russia (a real-life facility) “sounds of unknown origin” have been recorded deep beneath the permafrost and people have disappeared. Anya, along with other scientists and soldiers, is ordered to descend into the hole, which penetrates 12km below the surface, and take samples.
The first scenes at Kola, while the team’s still above ground, set up a sense of menace well. Even as their helicopter is landing, an obviously sick man in a white coat staggers forward, apparently trying to prevent them from coming any further. He’s dead before he can explain, and another survivor of the borehole, a miner about to be evacuated, can also do little more than warn Anya. “It’s not a disease,” he says. “It’s hell down there. That’s what they found—Hell.”
Anya and her team proceed to go to Hell, as it were, via an exciting (if not wholly plausible) elevator descent. Miles down into the earth at one level of the borehole, though still not at the bottom, they find scratched inscriptions reading “help us”, “deliver us from evil”, and the phrase “insatiable hunger” in Latin (Russian miners being well-known for employing classical languages in graffiti). At this point the film’s still genuinely suspenseful.
However, about 40-minutes in, the nature of the thing they’re dealing with is revealed, and from thereon in the tension starts to ebb away. We know that many of the team will die and that Anya will at least make it to the last reel, so the only question in the viewer’s mind is how things happen rather than what happens. And, indeed, there are no further big surprises, though there is some nice if slightly predictable circularity to the conclusion.
But if Superdeep (also known as The Superdeep and Kola Superdeep) takes no radical steps away from the expected, there’s plenty to like. Radulovic excels as Anya, having great screen presence. She’s professionally determined and unblinking (literally), but also scared (of her supposed colleagues more than the thing in the hole?) and moves like a hunted animal.
Dmitry Selipanov’s mostly electronic score is smarter than the usual B Movie soundtrack, even if the dreaded voiceless choir is used too much, as there’s creative exploitation of varied timbres and styles. Much of the time it’s little more than background growls, but the music works equally well when it is fuller-textured, and there’s a successful section in quasi-Philip Glass style too. Powerful diegetic sound, which almost forms a score itself at moments, complements this.
Visually, director-writer Arseny Syuhin and cinematographer Hayk Kirakosyan do a stylish job, executing each scene with a variety of angles and shot types without becoming intrusively flashy. The pervasive grey-green colour scheme is apposite for the claustrophobic setting and totalitarian context, and editing is slick too, though the layout of the spaces in which the action takes place isn’t always clear.
Much of the effect that Superdeep’s visual and aural strengths might have had is, however, diluted by the fact that it’s dubbed.
The mundanity of the English-language dialogue by Samuel Stewart Hunter is not entirely the writer’s fault (dubbing’s as much a technical exercise in exactly matching durations as it is a creative storytelling one) but it certainly dulls the film, and as always, once you’re aware the film is dubbed some of your attention is distracted into watching how the words and people’s lip movements don’t sync. This also makes it impossible to judge most of the performances, some of which look like they might actually have been decent in Russian.
This apart, though, Superdeep is a well-made horror, if unremarkable and only sporadically imaginative exercise. But it’s certainly watchable enough until genre convention forces it to go in predictable directions.
RUSSIA | 2020 | 113 MINUTES | COLOUR | RUSSIAN (ENGLISH DUBBED)
writer & director: Arseny Syuhin.
starring: Milena Radulovic, Sergey Ivanyuk & Nikolay Kovbas.